Steve Tambellini: Not Making Sense

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Steve Tambellini’s comments on the firing of three members of the Oilers’ support staff don’t make much sense to me.

There’s a disconnect between Tambellini’s assessment of the job done by Ken Lowe, Barrie Stafford, and Lyle Kulchisky and the rationale behind firing them. Tyler Dellow picked up on it the other day (and also trashed the Journal’s John MacKinnon sloppy logic in his coverage of the move), but I couldn’t resist making some comments on it.

First, what Steve Tambellini thinks of the three men, from the Oilers official website:

  • “There is absolutely no question Kenny, Barrie and Sparky have done a remarkable job here over the past three decades and more.”
  • “These three guys have been terrific contributors to this franchise through thick and thin.”
  • “I use the words great people to describe all three, and that’s exactly what they are and all three will continue to contribute to the Oilers.”
  • “This has nothing to do with their work, their effort, their passion, or their dedication. “
  • “We all know you couldn’t find three more hard working, dedicated or passionate people in this industry.”

Great people. Hard workers. Dedicated. Passionate. Terrific contributers. Have done a remarkable job over the past three decades or more. Those sound more like comments made by a manager hiring those three then the comments of a manager firing those three.

Of course, there must be some reason to dismiss such wonderful people from the job they’ve executed efficiently for the vast majority of the franchise’s history. Steve Tambellini, again from the Oilers’ official website:

“However, at the end of the season and for some time now I have been communicating our plan for the future. Part of that plan is to change the culture in our dressing room, and this is the right moment to bring a fresh energy to the medical, training and equipment area and Ken, Barrie and Sparky understand that.” 

It’s a cultural issue. You see, to build a winning team, Steve Tambellini needs to make sure he gets the right kind of culture in his dressing room. Step One in that process is eliminating “great people” who are unparalleled in their work ethic, passion, dedication, and have a rich history of commitment to the team, through thick and thin. These are qualities that must be eliminated if the Oilers are to relentlessly climb out of the cellar and contend for the Stanley Cup.

There’s no sense to that combination of comments. People of such excellent character make positive contributions to culture – as Tambellini shows when he credits those men as contributing to the culture of teams that won World Championships and an Olympic medal, and since they’ve been contributors to the culture of Cup-winning teams in the past.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that Tambellini wasn’t being completely honest. It’s possible these weren’t such great guys, although there’s precious little evidence of that.

Another interesting point: in initial reports on this story, Oilers head trainer Ken Lowe was described as “stepping down” from his position. Robin Brownlee had Lowe’s comment on that for Oilers Nation:

"If that’s what they’re saying, then that’s what I’m going to stand by," said Lowe. "The Oilers have been good to me."

The Oilers’ latest story on the firings doesn’t contain that helpful little assertion. Steve Tambellini takes credit for ‘bringing fresh energy’ to the position of head trainer, so perhaps the initial implication was wrong.

At this point, I hope the rationale Tambellini stated publicly is different than the one behind the scenes.

UPDATE TO ADD: And, based on the comments, it appears the majority feel I’ve been too critical of Tambellini here (likely) but I think the biggest problem is that I didn’t make my point very well: the basic logic of Tambellini’s statement doesn’t make sense to me.  Praising an employee’s character to high heaven and then citing ‘culture’ as the reason behind firing just strikes me as nonsensical, and thus I’d suspect he’s being less than honest in his public statement.  Of course, he’s also under no obligation to be completely honest with the public, either, but I felt the apparent contradiction deserved pointing out. 

FINAL UPDATE: I’ve toned down the article to be less critical of Tambellini because in this specific instance I was being needlessly inflammatory.

  • @ Ducey:

    This isn’t the first time you’ve brought up the ‘mom’s basement’ thing. I’m curious: in resorting to lazy stereotyping, are you hoping to frame the argument around my character rather than the issue being discussed?

    • Ducey

      As for the comments about your mom’s basement, it just strikes me that you continually have trouble understanding concepts like attitude, toughness, character, and the complexity that makes up people, players and relationships. Some of these traits may be over-emphasized by the Don Cherrys and Pierre Maquires of the hockey world, but you go the other way.

      Saying you hang out in your mom’s basement summarizes that nicely.

      Your comments today further cement that in my mind. So I guess I am attacking your analytical abilites but I would not be able to do so if your comments regarding the issues were not just patently wrong – Tambellini airing all the dirty laudry of the team and its employees is totally unrealistic because it would be damaging and counterproductive to the the team and the very people you supposedly are concerned about.

      Unless you are not really concerned about these employees as much as you are trying to advance your Tambellini character thesis.

  • There is another possible reason to let the training staff go.

    A lot of new ideas and techniques have been developed in recent years. Our staff may well have been competent to very good, as nearly all NHL training staffs would be, but perhaps they are hoping to update the staff to make sure they are taking advantage of the best training available.

    The specific example that initially sparked my curiosity was the training staff hired by the Phoenix Suns a few years back. (different sport, yes, but bear with me)

    They let go a perfectly competent group to bring in a group with an entirely different perspective and it has done wonders. They are famously regarded as the best training group in the NBA by a wide margin.

    Amare Stoudemire was able to come back from Micro-fracture surgery with zero effect on his explosiveness and power.

    They thought Steve Nash’s career was ending in Dallas because of his back, yet not only has he gone on for years in Phoenix, but he has improved and has played with more energy.

    Grant Hill has revived his career in Phoenix and stayed for less money so that he could keep working with those trainers. They also brought Shaq’s career back from the brink.

    The biggest thing is that they are regularly able to bring guys back from injury on an earlier schedule than is traditional, and maintained a very low level of re-occurrence. They are a huge benefit to the Suns, and one could easily argue that they are not even a playoff caliber team today without them.

    If this is the sort of thing Tambellini is looking for then I could approve of the move, even if he is simply looking to move to a more up-to-date staff. Unfortunately I have a hard time believing in such nuance from him and, most likely, if this was his plan he would have had their replacements set already.

  • Re: Dead horse.

    This news broke on Friday. The Oilers reacted yesterday.

    I tossed out an initial piece, with very little information other than the fact these men had been fired, because we wanted something up for people to comment on. I was suspicious of the news, but said we needed to hear the Oilers’ rationale.

    We’ve heard the Oilers’ rationale now. In my opinion, it makes little sense. I wrote an article on it.

    I don’t think this is a dead horse. Not remotely. This is something hte Oilers did on a fRiday, hoping to get it out of the public eye by the time Monday rolled around, and this is the first chance I’ve had to comment on the Oilers’ arguments.

  • @wangtaco:

    I think we can both agree that Tambellini’s a lousy communicator.

    Basically, my problem with that perspective is that Tambellini wasn’t talking in general terms – he highlighted strengths that match up very nicely with the culture he’s repeatedly stated he’s trying to implement.

    Than he cites that same culture as the reason they’re being dismissed.

    And aside from how he impacts the dressing room, it’s difficult to imagine how the guy who handles the visiting team’s equipment needs to be changed to make this team a Cup contender. All the qualities Tambellini cited are the qualities that a manager should want players to see in his support staff; his argument was inherently flawed.

  • Ducey


    I don’t know what you do for a living. Maybe you live in your mom’s basement. Maybe you’re under house arrest, stuck with a computer as your only human interaction. You need to get out.

    Have you not noticed anything about life? Its about shades of gray. I could call you a moron, cite this story and call it a day but you likely have some redeeming qualities. Its just sometimes you act like a moron. I doubt you like being called a moron – I doubt Tambo likes to be called a liar or incompetent.

    Have you ever seen a general removed from his job in charge of an army? A long serving coach or GM fired? A long term employee shown the door?

    As you apparently you have not, this is the way it goes. You cite the accomplishments of the person, thank them for their work, and refer vaguely to a need for change. Focusing on why the change was needed tends to hurt people and good leaders try not to do that unless its necessary. Everyone the planet knows whats going on. Everyone, except for the occasional moron who has to have it spelled out to him.

    Stafford was quoted the other day as welcoming the change. He has figured it out and its his f’in firing – not yours. Get over it.

  • Ducey

    JW, I get what you’re saying, but at the same time, isn’t it fair to say that people can indeed do great work, but not fit into the future plans of an organization? I mean, I might love the guy who I work with, and he might do a great job, in his own way, but if I have a vision for the organization moving forward, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to part ways if he doesn’t fit the plan going forward.

    I think Tambo is guilty of one thing here, and that is being a horrific communicator. Honestly, would this be an issue if at the end of his press release or awkward interview on the Oiler’s website, he had said “despite the fact that we love these guys and the work they have done, I, as the BIG MUTHAF*CK’N BOSS am making a change, because I have a plan for this organization from top to bottom” (ok, maybe not the capitalized part). I think, as a collective, many writers/readers have been guilty of assuming that because the Oiler’s aren’t as attention seeking as, oh I dunno, the Maple Leafs’ brass, that there isn’t a plan. I think that’d be a poorly guided assumption.

  • In Hall We Trust

    The Oilers are changing their training staff simply because it is a logical time to do it.

    They are at rock bottom. They are going to be bringing in mostly new players. The training staff was aging. Were they going to be there for the long haul, or in five years, would one be forced to change the training staff midstream in a rebuilding process.

    Mostly new players, an aging training staff. OR Mostly new players, and a new younger training staff that wouldn’t be changing midstream in 5 years.

    Being at rock bottom facilitates making longer term strategic decision-making, something which many commentators in the media and blogosphere are incapable of understanding.

    The training staff were the last to go, not the first. MacT and Huddy were dumped last year. Kevin Lowe lost final call a couple of weeks ago. Prendergast went early last week. The training staff went two days ago.

  • In Hall We Trust

    Why are we beating a dead horse ? Yeah it sucks when good ppl get let go from long time employment. With new blood comes fresh ideas and new practises.

    Im sure the training staff are all as great as Tambo said they were but over time no matter how good you are things become old and stale.

    • Apparently its hard to convey that sentiment to those predisposed to judge the gm.
      I was surprised I even heard about this firing, I am now stunned at how much time talented people are spending writing about it. But hey…. its life.. you only get one trip… so whatever cranks your tractor.

  • @magisterrex:

    Just because he’s got kind words for them in public doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have a list of problems that they’re responsible for that we’ll never find out about.

    I agree completely.

    Maybe I didn’t make it clear above, but personally I think Tambellini’s sugar-coating the departures and being disingenuous about why these men were let go.

    My main point was that his public statements make no sense.

    Of course, if these guys end up somewhere else in the organization, that will tell us something too, won’t it?

    • As someone else pointed out, when you terminate someone’s employment (or reassign them to another position in the company) you don’t publicly embarrass them with the reasons why you’re doing it. No one besides the Oilers management team and the individuals involved have a need to know the reasons. The rest of us should be satisfied that those removed are not crying foul. Clearly, they know the score.

      It’s time to move on. This issue was DOA before it was blogged about.

  • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

    I really don’t get why everyone is so upset about this. For the past two seasons everyone has been saying that Tambo is a puppet to Kevin Lowe (not sure if you were in this camp or not Willis) and now that he goes out and proves that this is his team by doing something Kevin Lowe would never be seen doing, everyone is ticked off about that.

    Rebuilding an organization takes more than switching around a couple of forwards.

  • Meatless comments by TAMS seems to be the norm . It has taken him three years to even find or address his mounting problems or acknowledge some – not exactly Johnathan Swift . I wonder if it will take him another slow three more years to change the culture to whatever his meatless talk is – or does he even know what it is ,is the question ? Lowe hired him ,but his expectations of him are suspect at best .I’m not comfortable or optimistic Tambellini can handle a positive cultural change ,if what he has failed to accomplish in last three years is an accurrate account/assessment of him . Maybe he is trying to hide things and just pass the buck to try and keep his job . Now that makes more sense than anything he has said or done so far from my perspective .

  • Someone commented elsewhere that Tambo is looking to recapture the magic of youthful players growing with a youthful support staff.

    I don’t think you’ve ever been in a position of senior management, Mr. Willis. It sucks to fire people or displace them, but sometimes the big picture requires it. You don’t fire people like you see on The Apprentice. Just because he’s got kind words for them in public doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have a list of problems that they’re responsible for that we’ll never find out about.

    I’m finding all this gnashing of teeth and renting of sack-cloths by the blogging community every time Tambo makes a move to be a little excessive. Really, it’s not the end of the world.

  • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

    Willis, it’s tambo’s team so he’s putting people in place that he wants there. Including med staff. Stop acting so butt hurt and get over it.

  • @ David Staples:


    And in this case, had Steve Tambellini trotted out the usual, “we really appreciate their efforts over the past years, but we felt we needed to make a change” this wouldn’t have been a problem.

    But to praise their character and then argue that you can’t have a winning culture with them around makes no sense. It’s illogical, and if Tambellini is being honest with the public I don’t see many alternatives other than incompetence.

  • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

    I can see the reasons behind trying to change the culture of the Oilers.

    Were the training staff in some small way a bad influence on the players? I can’t see it but we aren’t privy to what goes on behind closed doors.

    Weren’t there rumblings a year or so ago about the older and younger players being apart from one another? More than a culture difference I think.

    Hopefully, this change in culture goes far beyond, staff. I think that entrenched players like Moreau played a big part in the losing mentality the Oil have had the past few years.